Franklin’s Gardens is an English rugby beauty spot, one of those architecturally charming places where every player should always aspire to play. Last Sunday, though, it became a ghoulish graveyard for Fraser Dingwall and his luckless Northampton colleagues.
There they were, fully deserving of their seven-point lead against Gallagher Premiership leaders Bristol coming down the finishing straight only for it all to end up horribly going wrong and they instead trooped off devastated and beaten by seven.
It made for car crash television if you were a Saints fan. The clock read 74:37 when Andy Uren whipped out an immaculate, long-ranging pass from near the goalposts for Luke Morahan to scoot in at the corner for the converted leveller. Then, with the clock having only advanced to 76:23, there was that man Uren again being an absolute pain, diving in under the posts after Bristol has unstoppably countered with the ball that spilt loose on the floor from the restart kick chase.
A nightmare had unfolded in the space of just 106 agonising seconds, leaving Northampton six points off the fourth and final playoff spot held by Sale rather than that gap being cut to half that margin. All the more brutal was that it was Bristol who had done the damage, re-opening the aching December 4 wound that was the Bears stealing Ashton Gate victory against the Saints with a clock-in-the-red Sam Bedlow penalty.
“It’s cruel,” shrugged Dingwall, taking the time to chat to RugbyPass in the run-up to this Saturday’s Northampton trip to Worcester where the prospective England midfielder will be on the bench. “In fairness to Bristol, they always seem to steal a lot of games at the death so maybe they have got on a good habit of it and it isn’t purely down to us, maybe they have just got luck on their side.
— Bristol Bears (@BristolBears) March 21, 2021
“Yeah, it was a tough one and at the end of the game it was very hard to take because I felt like we had fought back so well and had controlled it… with high performance sport the outcome is the key thing and we didn’t win. That does weigh on the mind but there were so many positives in the game and there was a two, three-minute period of us unfortunately compounding a few errors.
“I couldn’t really believe it to be honest when they were suddenly seven points up and it all happened in the space of a minute and a half. There wasn’t a huge amount we did get wrong and it was horrible, a pretty horrible feeling. You feel pretty empty.”
Thankfully, Saints boss Chris Boyd didn’t bag them for the self-destruction. “He would be just incredibly frustrated and almost in disbelief, which is pretty much reflected in the players. He is not someone who is going to get angry. He is very much the same as the players. He would just be incredibly frustrated that another one of those results had slipped away from us this season.”
It has been the story of Northampton’s campaign – plenty of encouraging endeavour interspersed with hard-luck stories, a carry-over from their post-lockdown run in the resumed 2019/20 season where they weekly seemed to find a new way of losing. A bit of consistency, though, and it wouldn’t take long for them to be more constantly in the conversation about who will be this season’s semi-finalists next June.
“The mood is good,” reported Dingwall despite the anguish of seeing some Northampton victories snatched away at the death. “We are showing that when we get things right and perform how we know we can, we can turn over any side and that has shown in our results. Wins against top teams like Exeter and Sale. We just need to get to the point that when we beat a team like Sale that we then beat Bristol the week after and become consistent against top teams.”
Enough of the Northampton collective, though: How is Dingwall himself trucking along in these extraordinary times? He was involved in two October England training camps and was also chosen in the squad for the Barbarians match.
We all know what sadly happened to that aborted fixture and it has since been challenging for the centre to build momentum back with his club, cancelled matches, illness and hectic competition for starting slots limiting him to five starts at No13 and five more appearances so far as a sub in a season where only 13 of Northampton’s 18 scheduled Premiership and Champions Cup games up to now have taken place.
“I feel like I’m going reasonably well,” he reported. “It’s nice to be back in the team after I was out for a couple of weeks. It’s always tough to get back in because every other week there seems to be a game called off because of Covid cases so there isn’t the rotation normally demanded of the players. I’ve just found a good chance to get my head down and work quite hard off the pitch.”
The footwork from FRASER DINGWALL again! ?
Great line from the Centre to find Tom James for the try. ?
— Rugby on BT Sport (@btsportrugby) March 7, 2021
Set to turn 22 on April 7, last week was the 46th appearance in three seasons for Dingwall at Northampton and while it is generally said that the No13 position is the hardest on the pitch to defend in, he is getting more and more acquainted with the demands of this role as time goes by.
“Experience always helps,” he explained. “It is very different week to week because you constantly come up against different styles of play and different threats. I don’t think it necessarily gets easier, you just start to recognise things occasionally a bit quicker just through your preparation more than anything.
“It’s constantly just trying to take things from different teams. You see impressive things in some teams, especially around that channel, how they manipulate attackers and turn people back inside when they have got a massive overlap or they are coming through the middle and you’re able to push them to the edge.
‘It’s constantly watching rugby and taking things from the top teams. Intercepts are a good one, there has been a good few in the Six Nations. Any time you see an intercept, that is a pretty good example of someone who is alive to the attackers and ended up stealing their ball.”
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All the while Dingwall is keen to pack a more powerful punch in the Northampton midfield. He’s not the most physically daunting player you will find. No-one will ever be nicknaming him The Eclipse for his size, that’s for sure. But he has used the past year to hone his technique and ensure he is steadily at what he feels is his best fighting weight.
“I feel I’m okay at the moment. Around the first Covid lockdown I managed to get in a really good conditioning block and ticked off a few physical goals that I had been wanting to ever since I had started at the club.
“It’s the modern way of the game that people come in different shapes and sizes. I’m not one of the biggest centres so I have to make up for it with intent and mental attitude towards the contact area and probably technique so I do a lot of work because I’m not necessarily blessed with huge amounts of size and strength.
“I’m about 92, 93kgs. It’s pretty steady for the whole of this season, which is quite nice. I’m someone who loses weight quite quickly and it’s about having it pretty steady. That is probably a pretty good weight for me. The only thing I want to do now is to continually add more strength and power. I don’t like feeling too heavy when I’m not strong enough to move it quickly and so I’m pretty happy with the weight I am at the moment.”
He carved up in attack at Quins, but just look at this technique from @FraserDingwall_ in defence yesterday.
This textbook tackle led to a penalty ? pic.twitter.com/m5XYcQEcVe
— Northampton Saints ? (@SaintsRugby) March 14, 2021
On-the-money tackle technique is all the more imperative these days in a climate where red cards for getting the contact wrong are two a penny. “It’s one of those things where the refs are trying to force the change around that contact area to the head and that is rightly so because it is a key part to the game and some of that can definitely be made a lot safer,” continued Dingwall.
“It is going to have an immediate effect of a lot of red cards but soon there will be a forcible change and people will start to change their habits and techniques and that is probably the best thing about it. It is going to put a large emphasis on good tackle technique which on the whole makes it safer for the tackler as well as the person who is being tackled.”
The Cambridge-born Dingwall was 14 when he first became attached to Northampton. He began representative rugby playing for Scotland at U16s and U18s before reverting to England, captaining them at the 2019 Junior World Championship and for that year’s Six Nations.
National allegiance is a huge source of pride for Saints. When Boyd announced his team to play Sale the other week, the club took to Twitter with a tweet showing 15 England flags and a dozen asterisk denoting how twelve of the XV had come through the Northampton academy, Dingwall among them.
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It’s a homegrown success he is rather chuffed with. “That is just a credit to the academy system that I and several others have come through and from first-hand experience, I can tell you that is exceptional,” he said.
“It’s due to time and attention, and the attitude of Chris Boyd since he has come in, he has put a lot into young English guys, a big focus on developing homegrown players, and that has been massive for the opportunity of myself and others. We are very thankful for him as other coaches would look to sign from abroad.
“We have got very good facilities here, everything is in one place and it’s a pretty tight-knit club. You’re able to work closely with your coaches and get quite honest feedback. It just leads to a good circle of getting better and finding new things to get better at. It’s a constant churn in terms of bringing out good young players.”
Our Starting XV tomorrow:
— Northampton Saints ? (@SaintsRugby) March 12, 2021
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